In workshop earlier this semester, my wise peers gave me some typically wise advice:
“You’re idealizing relationships too much,” they said.
“The author is smarter than the narrator. You know that romantic love won’t solve everything.”
I do know this. Sort of. But it’s easier to play with point of view and structure and tone than to be more reflective. I promptly ignored them in my revision.
During my trip home to New York today, though, I was reminded of what they said.
Specifically, an 83-year old Delta passenger named Phyllis, seated beside me between Minneapolis and JFK, reminded me.
Phyllis was (actually, probably she still is) on her way to Cairo. She has three grown children, but no interest in spending the holiday with them. She sees them other times of the year. It will not be her first visit to Cairo, either: she told me she’s been to sixty countries.
“Really I’m just going to Egypt so I can get to Syria,” she explained.
“Why do you want to go to Syria?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t been yet.”
Phyllis, who lives in Lansing, Michigan–where she raised those three kids, alone (“I had a husband, but I got rid of him”)–spontaneously announced to me, abruptly looking up frrom her Steven Martini thriller, that she loves being single.
(Note: I understand that this, along with what follows, sounds highly improbable; you’ll have to trust that, this time at least, I’m not making things up.)
“I mean, I used to date,” she explained. “But I’m finished.”
Before I could even prompt her for further explanation, she continued:
“I saw this sculpture in the airport,” she said. “And you know, I could just buy it!”
I interrupted. “Wait: you like being single so that you can buy sculpture? You couldn’t buy a sculpture if you had a husband?”
“I don’t think so,” she said, shaking her head and going on to describe in lush detail the bronze fairy statue that she might well purchase on her way back.
“You see,” she explained, “I grow orchids. It would be just perfect with my orchids.” She clasped her hands together. I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone so happy in weeks.
I was eager to probe further into this new and confident justification of singledom (bronze fairy, flowers). But she soon returned to the broader argument.
“Having children isn’t really all that great,” she said, quietly, as though issuing a secret she didn’t want to too broadly dispatch.
I laughed. “You are happy you had children, though, aren’t you?”
She curled her mouth. “No, not really. They need so much stroking.”
I asked how old her children are.
“Well, my son is sixty-two…” she began, as my jaw continued to drop. Her daughters, she then told me, are in their fifties.
“Really,” she continued, “it just never ends.”
I asked her when she grew fed up with dating, whether she’d had time to date while her children were young.
“Oh yes,” she said. “I just told them to go out and play. You know men only want women for sex.”
“Right,” I said. “I did know that.”
I told her I could completely understand that, particularly at her age, it would be easier–not to mention more fun, and certainly more conducive to impulsive purchase of ornate art pieces–to be alone than to be with someone else. At any age, I said, it’s better to be alone than with someone who isn’t exceptional.
She hurriedly agreed. She told me that she sees lots of men in her work volunteering with heart patients at a local hospital.
“They’re very nice,” she said. “But I wouldn’t have any of em.”
Again, I laughed. “Well, why not?”
“I love being by myself,” she said. “I have plenty of things to do at home. Sometimes I get bored, you know. But I read books. I watch television. I have friends who I can call up.”
I told her this was interesting for me to hear because I write about relationships. She suggested that, for good advice, I watch Dr. Phil.
“He tells it like it us,” she explained. “But really, you just need to be happy with yourself. That’s all.”
“I know,” I replied. “I know that’s all.”